Jean-Paul Belmondo and Stephen Vizinczey: Non-conformist, great and late at 88

Two men, who found fame in the 1960s – one in film and the other in literature – died in the past month in 2021 at the age of 88: Jean-Paul Belmondo, the French actor known for his portrayal in the 1960 film Breathless, and Stephen Vizinczey, the Hungarian-American author, for his novel In Praise of Older Women (1965), a French best-seller. 

Jean-Paul Charles Belmondo, born on 9 April 1933, died on 6 September 2021. Istvan (Stephen) Vizinczey, born on 12 May 1933, died on 18 August 2021.

Jean-Paul Belmondo dropped out of school and briefly became an amateur boxer. His parents, Madeline Rainaud-Richard and Paul Belmondo, paid for his acting lessons at a private conservatory before he was accepted into the Conservatoire National d’Art Dramatique in 1953. 

At 26 years of age, he played the existential killer, an anti-social, defiant youth in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (À Bout de Soufflé), as part of the New Wave (Nouvelle Vague) cinema. 

Jean-Paul Belmondo 1960 (Keystone/Hutton Archive)

With counter-conventional looks, Belmondo was against pretentiousness. American actress Jean Seberg played alongside Jean-Paul Belmondo, described as an ‘hypnotically ugly new young man.’

Godard filmed Breathless in Paris, mainly with a hand-held camera and no script – his actors improvised the scenes. Initially criticized, the film was later praised for its ‘emotional honesty.’ Belmondo became known in later New Wave movies as the movement’s leading interpreter.

He was also noted for his role in Vittorio De Sica’s film Two Women (1961) in which Sophia Loren was an Academy Award, and Philippe De Broca’s That Man from Rio (1964), a parody of the James Bond movies. He became famous for performing his own stunts, hanging from skyscrapers, leaping across speeding trains, and driving cars off hillsides. He made 41 films in the 1960s, 16 films in the 1970s, 9 movies in the 1980s, and 6 films in the 1990s. Many of his films after the mid-1960s were made by his own production company. He had a stroke in 2001, but returned to work in 2009 for his last movie, A Man and His Dog.

He had two wives and four children. He married his first wife Élodie Constantin when he was nineteen and his second wife, 24-year-old Nathalie Tardivel, when he was 70 years old in 2002. They divorced in 2008.

Author Stephen Vizinczey was best known for his controversial novel (for its time), In Praise of Older Women: The Amorous Recollections of Andras Vajda which became a huge best seller. It tells the story of a man’s sexual education through several older women – in part, autobiographical. 

Stephen Vizinczey 1966 (Popperfoto, via Getty Images)

Vizinczey said his aim was to provide an alternative to the conventional view of same-age relationships. ‘The North American myth that youth is wonderful, that the perfect “woman” is 18 years old, is simply a lot of hogwash,’ he told The Gazette of Montreal in 1965 when the book was first published in Canada.

Hungarian by birth, he was also unconventional in forming his own company, Contemporary Canada Press, to publish the novel, which he marketed himself. His writing was remarkable in that he spoke almost no English when he arrived in Canada in 1957. But his faith in his own work paid off. By the time Penguin Classics republished the novel in 2010, it was said to have sold 5 million copies in 21 countries.

When it was republished, Vizinczey rejected the idea that the novel was purely about physical pleasure, and that, instead, it was about love and romance. The narrator, Andras Vajda, from the age of sixteen to twenty-six, reflects on his relationships with four mature women in their thirties. Stephen Vizinczey told The Independent Extra of Britain in 2010,

‘In the world I grew up in, sex was never just sex. It started with some kind of connection. The older women wanted to give something — not money, not a loan — to give something of themselves. You were friends, you had some point of unity. Intelligence was very important.’

Armadillo Alley Books

The book inspired a Hollywood film in 1978 with Tom Berenger and Karen Black and a Spanish film in 1997 with Juan Diego Botto and Faye Dunaway. The Times in 1985 said his second novel, An Innocent Millionaire (1983), a departure from his first novel, was ‘a delicious entertainment that towers above most commercial fiction.’ 

Soon after moving to Canada in 1957, he married Gloria Fisher Harron in 1963, and they had two daughters, Mary Harron and Marianne Edwards. Mary Harron wrote:

‘My mother believed passionately in his work, and she was enormously important to him as editor, researcher and critic — everything he wrote passed under her eyes for review. Before computers, she typed out everything he wrote in longhand, and I remember huge stormy arguments over the placement of a comma.’

Although both men took the unconventional path, they both achieved major success as audiences became more accepting of non-conformist movie techniques, non-typically attractive leading romantic men, and relationships. By slightly stretching the boundaries, Jean-Paul Belmondo and Stephen Vizinczey still remained true to their creative belief and ‘thematic boldness.’ 

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